Providence County Superior Court. (PM 10-6823). Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter.
For Plaintiff: Kathleen M. Kelly, Esq.
For Defendant: Carly B. Iafrate, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ. Justice Flaherty, with whom Justice Robinson joins, dissenting in part and concurring in part.
This case came before the Supreme Court on appeal, by the defendant, Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers (RIBCO), from a Superior Court order granting a motion by the plaintiff, State of Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC), to vacate an arbitration award. The RIBCO contends that the Superior Court erred in vacating the arbitration award. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm.
Facts and Travel
On March 2, 2009, the DOC Chief Inspector Aaron Aldrich (Inspector Aldrich) and Warden Stephen Boyd received information that two officers, Gene Davenport (Officer Davenport) and James Maddalena (Officer Maddalena), were smoking marijuana in a department vehicle while on duty. When Inspector Aldrich approached the vehicle, he saw that Officer Davenport was alone; he noticed a strong odor of marijuana smoke emanating from the vehicle; and he observed that Officer Davenport's eyes were bloodshot. Officer Davenport subsequently confessed to smoking marijuana while assigned to perimeter security--one of the few posts at the DOC where a correctional officer is armed with a weapon--and was escorted to a captain's office for questioning. Officer Davenport admitted that Officer Maddalena had been in the vehicle while he smoked the marijuana, but he said that Officer Maddalena had not done so.
The Rhode Island State Police were contacted and conducted an investigation. After interviewing Officer Davenport, the police questioned Officer Maddalena. He was not truthful. Initially, Officer Maddalena, an officer with approximately twenty-eight years of experience, admitted to being in the vehicle with Officer Davenport but denied seeing him smoke marijuana. Inspector Aldrich also interviewed Officer Maddalena, who continued to deny that he had seen his fellow officer smoke marijuana that day. It was not until Inspector Aldrich informed Officer Maddalena that a witness had observed Officer Davenport smoking marijuana while Officer Maddalena was in the vehicle that Officer Maddalena finally admitted the truth--that Officer Davenport was smoking marijuana, in his presence, while on duty.
Officer Maddalena was placed on administrative leave with pay, and a pre-disciplinary hearing was held on April 8, 2009. Officer Maddalena was charged on his failure to report a fellow correctional officer smoking marijuana on duty, his dishonesty during an interview with the Rhode Island State Police, and his dishonesty during an interview by the DOC's Office of Inspections. Director Ashbel T. Wall, II (Director Wall) subsequently notified Officer Maddalena, in writing, that he was being terminated from employment with the DOC. Director Wall stated that Officer Maddalena's " conduct [was] contrary to the standards of conduct required by the State of Rhode [Island] and the [DOC]. [His] actions call[ed] into question [his] judgment and ethical standards and, therefore, [his] ability to perform [his] job with integrity." The RIBCO immediately filed a grievance on behalf of Officer Maddalena, in accordance with its Collective Bargaining
Agreement (CBA), contending that he was terminated without just cause.
More than one year later, the matter proceeded to arbitration on July 26, 2010. At the arbitration hearing, the issue in dispute was the following: " Was [Officer] Maddalena terminated with just cause? If not, what shall be the remedy?" At the hearing, Officer Maddalena declined to testify; however, RIBCO submitted a document that, according to the arbitrator, " purport[ed] to be a summary of applied discipline for 'dishonesty'" seeking to demonstrate that the DOC's history of discipline for dishonesty has not included termination. Inspector Aldrich, Rhode Island State Police Sergeant Benjamin Barney (Sergeant Barney), and Director Wall testified at the arbitration hearing on behalf of the DOC. Inspector Aldrich and Sergeant Barney testified to the substantive facts. Additionally, Inspector Aldrich and Director Wall testified about the critical importance of safety and security of perimeter posts and the extensive training officers receive on the need to report threats to the institutions' security promptly and the duty to report any on-duty criminal conduct. Director Wall also testified that the DOC must have trust and confidence in the honesty, judgment, and reliability of its officers. Specifically, Director Wall noted that any lapse in areas relating to safety and security can lead to serious, if not deadly, consequences.
In analyzing the document submitted by RIBCO, the arbitrator proceeded to determine whether Officer Maddalena's punishment--termination--was " reasonable." The arbitrator noted that
" [i]f, over an extended period of time, management has responded to a particular type of offense with a range or band of discipline based on the individual circumstances and severity of a case, an arbitrator would be hard[-]pressed to go outside that defined spectrum of penalties unless the offense itself is significantly outside said spectrum."
The arbitrator then proceeded to compare and contrast the cases contained in RIBCO's document with the conduct of Officer Maddalena. After rejecting most of the cases in the document, the arbitrator focused on a single incident concerning Captain Michael Martufi, an officer who had been aware that a co-worker had engaged in criminal activity, lied to a DOC inspector about the criminal activity on two occasions, warned the co-worker of the DOC's investigation, and was not terminated. The arbitrator also credited the testimony of the DOC witnesses and specifically found Director Wall's testimony to be " compelling" and " convincing." Nevertheless, the arbitrator determined that " there was not just cause for the termination of [Officer] Maddalena[,]" because terminating an officer for dishonesty was not in concert with the DOC's history of discipline. Instead, the award provided that Officer Maddalena be suspended without pay for sixty days and " be made whole for lost wages and benefits less the sixty * * * day suspension without pay * * *."
On November 19, 2010, the DOC filed a petition in Providence County Superior Court, seeking to vacate the arbitration award. The RIBCO responded on November 29, 2010, with a motion to confirm the arbitration award. The DOC argued that the arbitrator exceeded his powers by substituting his judgment for that of the director of the DOC and that the trial justice was not precluded from vacating the award due to a recent amendment to G.L. 1956 § 42-56-10, (P.L. 2007, ch. 523, § 1), the section of the General Laws that enumerates the powers of the director of the DOC. The RIBCO countered that the arbitrator's determination that the dispute
was arbitrable was supported by statutory and contractual authority and that the arbitrator's findings and conclusions were rationally based on the arbitrator's evaluation of the evidence and pertinent law.
After reviewing the memoranda of the parties, a justice of the Superior Court granted the DOC's motion to vacate the arbitration award and denied RIBCO's motion to confirm. The trial justice determined (1) that the dispute was arbitrable--in accordance with § 42-56-10(24); and (2) that the arbitrator exceeded his authority and reached an irrational result because his " decision was based upon a manifest disregard of the [CBA]." The RIBCO timely appealed.
Standard of Review
In Rhode Island, there is " a strong public policy in favor of the finality of arbitration awards." Berkshire Wilton Partners, LLC v. Bilray Demolition Co., 91 A.3d 830, 834 (R.I. 2014) (citing North Providence School Committee v. North Providence Federation of Teachers, Local 920, American Federation of Teachers, 945 A.2d 339, 344 (R.I. 2008)). Accordingly, " [j]udicial review of arbitration awards is 'statutorily prescribed and is limited in nature.'" Wheeler v. Encompass Insurance Co., 66 A.3d 477, 480 (R.I. 2013) (quoting Buttie v. Norfolk & Dedham Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 995 A.2d 546, 549 (R.I. 2010)).
" Moreover, a court has no authority to vacate an arbitration award based upon a mere error of law." State Department of Corrections v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 64 A.3d 734, 740 (R.I. 2013). " If the award 'draws its essence from the contract' and reflects a 'passably plausible interpretation of the contract,' a reviewing court must confirm the award." Id. (quoting Cumberland Teachers Association v. Cumberland School Committee, 45 A.3d 1188, 1192 (R.I. 2012)).
However, under G.L. 1956 § 28-9-18(a), an arbitration award in labor disputes must be vacated:
" (1) When the award was procured by fraud[; ] (2) Where the arbitrator or arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them, that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made[; or] (3) If there was no valid submission or contract, and the objection has been raised under the conditions set forth in § 28-9-13."
" Otherwise, '[t]he court has no authority to vacate the arbitrator's award absent a manifest disregard of a contractual provision, a completely irrational result, a decision that is contrary to public policy, or an award that determined a matter that was not arbitrable in the first place.'" Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 64 A.3d at 739 (quoting Cumberland Teachers Association, 45 A.3d at 1192).